With nearly 20 Vogue covers to date, and an international fragrance launch this Spring, Bela has bucked the trend of short-lived careers, remaining an active presence within the fashion industry, at an age where most models are long into their retirement.
Bela debuted in Paris Fashion Week in September 1998, aged 21. Appearing on the cover of Spanish Vogue a few months later, in early 1999 she was signed to represent Versace.
The label at the time was still easing into the transition of Donatella as Creative Director, after the murder of her brother Gianni in 1997. Donatella surprised many fashion insiders by taking to the business of fashion design far more quickly (and successfully) than anyone could have imagined.
The iconic Medusa head and bold, swirling prints made way for a more feminine turn-of-phrase, with goddess gowns pushing Versace as a red-carpet label. The S/S 1999 Versace campaign spread this concept further, pairing Malgosia with Carmen Kass, Frankie Rayder and Gisele Bundchen. All four models were photographed by Steven Meisel in uber-sexy, slinky gowns that were just begging for their moment on the red-carpet. This was Versace’s new era, and Donatella’s defining moment.
Looking at these adverts, it is clear just how far fashion can shift in the space of a few years. In 1999, fashion was all about full-on Millennium glamour – even boho got the luxury treatment at Gucci with wildly feathered jeans costing upwards of $3000. This was the age of fashion innocence, before world events changed our relationship with clothes for good. Versace’s polished groomed sophistication was at the apex of this movement: this was more than just looking expensive – it took real money to look like this. It is extraordinary to think that only 12 years later, the same label is collaborating with one of the biggest names on the high-street. During the course of Malgosia’s career, fashion really has come full circle.
In March 1999, Bela joined model Maggie Rizer on the cover of Italian Vogue. Following that with covers for French Vogue and Numero, Malgosia began to stack up some serious editorial experience. During the space of 12 months, she appeared on 9 magazine covers, plus spreads for French and Italian Vogue.
The following year, Malgosia took to the runway in earnest, with 46 shows in February 2000 and a mammoth 55 shows in September, including appearances for Balenciaga, Dior, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta.
Malgosia finally became that full model package in 2006 when she began to book major campaigns. She not only signed with Lanvin, Donna Karan, Louis Vuitton and Marc by Marc Jacobs, but she also began her long-standing association with Chloe. Appearing as the face of their A/W campaign, Bela was rapidly becoming a triple threat.
Adding Chanel Cosmetics to her campaign rota in 2009, Malgosia was still proving to be a strong candidate for catwalk in early 2010 when she walked in the S/S Givenchy Couture show at the age of 33. Bela became one of the faces of Givenchy’s autumn campaign, appearing alongside Mariacarla Boscono and Catherine McNeil. With more editorials for French, Japanese and Italian Vogue, Bela returned as the face of Chloe in 2011.
2011 proved to be a very good year for Malgosia, with more magazine covers including Turkish Vogue and campaigns for Nina Ricci and Iceberg. With back-to-back editorials for French Vogue in October and November, Bela ended the year on a high with an appearance in the 2012 Pirelli calendar. Shot by Mario Sorrenti, Bela models with the likes of Lara Stone, Joan Smalls, Natasha Poly and Saskia de Brauw. Pirelli has worked hard to turn-around the concept of the calendar nude, and the latest calendar presents some truly beautiful images.
Malgosia enters 2012 not with a whimper, but with a bang. With two huge campaigns already to her credit, this year promises to see Bela reach new heights. Modelling for Stella McCartney’s new fragrance, L.I.L.Y, Malgosia applies a lifetime of experience to a very important shoot. Named for Stella’s late mother, Linda McCartney, the perfume ad takes on an added poignancy and Bela models with great sensitivity. It is a brief that few younger models could manage successfully – it is in these moments, that Bela’s age becomes not a barrier, but an asset.
In her status as long-established, Malgosia certainly isn’t alone in the modelling industry. Like her peers, Mariacarla Boscono and Isabeli Fontana, she has continued to work well beyond the usual retirement age for an editorial model.
Those big names returning to the industry – Schiffer, Elson, McMenamy – have found themselves in-demand at the very highest levels of high-fashion. Claudia has worked regularly with Chanel and Kristen made a splash last year when she was featured on the cover of Italian Vogue.
This tide-change has been a slow process, but it neatly coincides with the Gucci generation growing up. The women who wore those $3000 feathered jeans are not so willing to let go of the fashion reins 10 years on. This generation are responsible for a large proportion of high-fashion purchases (both instore and online), and fashion houses ignore them at their peril.
This concentration of spending power has focused the fashion industry’s attention on the issue of age. There’s still plenty to entice younger consumers, but there is a discernible slice of the fashion market now aimed squarely at older fashion fans. It’s not just traditional labels (such as Donna Karan or Michael Kors), but newer design influences such as Reed Krakoff and Haider Ackerman that are providing real style options for the over-40’s.
This is nothing short of smart planning, because an ageing population (and one that is living for longer) places new demands on the fashion industry. As the Gucci generation ages, they will be the test case for how well fashion ages with them. But we don’t even have to wait that long, because in as little as 20 years, the typical ‘look’ of a pensioner will vary radically from our current view of sartorial old age, as the Baby Boomers (those born in the 1950’s), reach their Seventies and beyond.
As our expectations grow, this will undoubtedly affect the faces that are hired to represent labels. Just as many cosmetic brands have realised that selling anti-ageing skincare by using a model barely out of her teens is counter-productive, so fashion will adjust its long-term view in selling high-fashion.
It’s already being seen in new face, Kati Nescher. The German model, already a star of the latest Louis Vuitton campaign, is starting her career at the age of 27. Nescher, despite having a good five years on most models, is being touted as the face of 2012. Classically beautiful and already a dab hand at top-level campaigns, Nescher perhaps is the face of things to come.
With a career still on the rise, Malgosia’s body of work is a perfect example of how a modelling career can be extended, be made more sustainable, rather than a short, bright burst of creativity.
As fashion finds its feet in providing style to an older population, this could have dramatic (and positive) implications for all models. It is entirely possible that in the future we will be discussing models’ careers in terms of decades, rather than years. As the potential for spending on fashion increases, a 50-year-old could have more industry clout than her teenage daughter. The whole balance of consumer power could switch, seeing older customers (with more disposable cash) calling the shots.
Far from being prescriptive, this ageing generation, raised on high-fashion in its high-octane, aspirational phase, will want to continue exploring new trends beyond middle age and well into old age.
To sell to this generation, older models will have to become the norm, not rare cases like Bela and Fontana. It is possible to envisage models like Nescher working into their 40’s and 50’s as standard. It could transform the modelling industry for good, making a career as a model a long-term prospect rather than a job with an expiry date. Age, once seen as the bugbear of the fashion industry, could well become its saviour.HELEN TOPE